U.S. aviation regulators are planning a significant overhaul of safety measures in Alaska to address the remote state’s persistently high accident rate.
A mix of new technologies including bringing automated weather tracking equipment to outlying airports and more traditional moves, such as improving aviation maps, are being embraced starting next year, the Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday in a press release.
The agency actions were prompted by a yearlong review of safety in the state where flights face unique challenges of extreme weather, high mountains and vast areas with none of the aviation safety infrastructure common in the rest of the U.S. More than 80% of Alaska’s communities are accessible only by air.
“Alaska depends on aviation more than any other state, and we are committed to doing everything possible to make flying safer,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in the release.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents but has no regulatory power, last year found that the overall accident rate in Alaska was 2.35 times higher than the rest of the nation in the decade from 2008 through 2017. Crashes on smaller commercial airlines were 1.34 times higher in the state, the NTSB found.
The most recent U.S. airline passenger fatality occurred in Alaska on Oct. 17, 2019, when a commuter plane skidded off a runway on a remote Aleutian Island airport and a propeller slammed into the fuselage, according to NTSB records.
The state has also been the site of some of the worst fatal crashes in recent years involving the air-tour industry. A midair collision between two sightseeing planes killed six people on May 13, 2019, near Ketchikan.
The NTSB said in its conclusions last year that FAA efforts to improve safety in Alaska had stalled and called on the agency to make changes.
The FAA’s effort drew praise from Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans. “I have been pressing the FAA on this important initiative,” Sullivan said.
The Federal Aviation Administration Alaska Aviation Safety Initiative and the NTSB found that the most common factors in plane crashes in the state involved getting caught in deteriorating weather and accidentally flying into the ground. Often, crashes involved a mix of the two.